Friday, January 16, 2015

The mixed legacy of Mahinda Rajapaksa

People are remembered. They leave behind legacies. Those are remembered too. That they can be remembered for all the wrong reasons is another story, but the point is that giants rise and fall. When they fall, they usually leave behind a mixed legacy, with its share of critics and champions.

Winston Churchill, for example, is remembered for ending a war, but this does not preclude his critics from bemoaning his political legacy. People remember Qaddafi for quite a number of things as well, and not just his dictatorial rule. Even Prabhakaran, that megalomaniac despot, will be championed. There will be hurrah-boys and cheering squads no matter who the guy is. That's natural. Can't complain.

So how will Mahinda Rajapaksa be remembered? If there are so many things to remember him by, then what best encapsulates them all? And if there are lesser things he is known for, will they negative those greater victories he accomplished?

Mahinda's legacy is mixed. He ended a war. He ensured peace. He ushered in investment sans the biggest obstacle foreigners had (the war, of course). That he abused and distorted the market courtesy of his brothers who got themselves involved in unholy deals with companies and banks is, though not peripheral, to be left for another debate altogether. For the time being, however, he will be remembered. And thanked.

He also did lesser things. Lesser acts. That's natural, again. He's frail, after all. There were massive abuses of power under him, and while I cannot really say that he oversaw them all, I have to admit that if he were the strong leader he projected himself as to everyone, he could have at least forced those who flouted laws to toe the line. Didn't happen. The problem was especially so because, as one commentator put it to me recently, while Mahinda embodied strong leadership, he could not (tragically) make the transition from populist leader to statesman. Unlike S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.

Still, remembrance doesn't come naturally in a country where politicians promise everything and deliver nothing. There were leaders who promised rice from the moon. There were leaders who promised money to anyone and everyone who earned below a certain amount. There were promises of peace, reconciliation, and what-not, couched of course in hazy terms so that whenever they weren't realised, the "ruler" could always fall back on the "I am as human and frail as my voters" excuse.

Mahinda didn't do that. From day one, thanks largely to a coalition that supported him right till the end (save the JVP), he acted. All the way. He delivered. At a time when peace in name only remained the campaign signature of the opposition, he took a hard line against terrorists. That's the main thing we remember him for. Not that there aren't others. But they all pale into insignificance, naturally I suppose.

He also took a hard line against those who came from overseas, who abused our courtesy and piled up their demands on us, as though we were their serfs. I can never forget the day David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner visited Mahinda. Instead of affording them all the luxuries that his aides could come up with, he made them sit and wait. That's class. Shows courage. Big time.

It's still too early to tell whether he will be thanked for all these. Too early to see whether those minus-points will outweigh the rest. Personally, I don't think so. He's still popular, even among those who voted against him. To be fair, they didn't actually vote against him: they voted against those abusers he had licensed and allowed free rein in his own government. This doesn't absolve him, but the point is that he needed to lose. A third term, to be honest, would have tarnished his image even more.

He has handed over his party's chairmanship to Maithripala Sirisena. We don't know why. I am an optimist, however. I would like to think that he did this out of humility. Granted, it was not humility that sanctioned abuse and murder on a large scale, and most certainly not humility that provoked dissent from his own party.

He has his imperfections. He is corrupt. We all are. None of us is a lily-white angel, after all. If it's about corruption, about large-scale pilferage, I know that some of those who were involved with Sirisena's candidacy, especially those who went on a rampage against Mahinda (for no reason), have bigger and more horrendous allegations of power-abuse leveled at them. If at all for this reason, they lost even their own electorates to the man they were vilifying.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is a name etched across our history books. Don't get me wrong. History records both good and bad. It will be the same thing with him, this much I know. But he still is popular. He shouldn't try to make a comeback, at least not yet. He should gracefully retire to Medamulana and remain there, without echoing his less than dim predecessor and trying to make a saint of himself wherever he goes. We know him and know him well. That's enough. At least for now.

So now, change has come. That's inevitable. No-one's immortal. There is still disappointment in those who cheered him. Natural, considering how he had projected himself as invincible all these years. This doesn't license those diehard opposition loyalists who vilify him for crimes uncommitted, who conveniently forget the large-scale plunder of resources committed by some of those they now back. Doesn't matter. We elected Maithripala Sirisena. We can trust him.

It's difficult to picture someone else like Mahinda Rajapaksa within the past 50+ years here. Glancing at them all, I can come up with only two leaders who could gain this much popularity: the two Bandaranaikes. Like Mahinda, they were imperfect. Like Mahinda, they were kicked out, one unduly through murder and the other through a successor who for no rhyme or reason stripped off her civic rights.

But it's time to reconcile and forgive. It's time to move on. Mahinda Rajapaksa has realised this more than anyone else. I don't know about you, but when all the Dumindas and Mervyns will be forgotten, there will be one name that will rise up. Notwithstanding all those diehard party loyalists who will blindly adulate or vilify him, he will stay and be remembered. Always.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com.